No One Seems Sure What's Been Holding up Drone Strikes in Niger

US and Nigerien officials say they're in agreement, but politics and functional issues are clearly delaying the plan.

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Weeks after a deadly incident that led to the deaths of four American troops, the United States and Niger appear to be steadily moving towards an agreement that would see armed American unmanned aircraft flying missions from the West African country. Both parties have been subtly deflecting responsibility for not reaching this arrangement sooner, but the factors at play could be just as much functional, having to do with things such as the need for more personnel to load munitions and places to store those weapons safely, as they are a product of the political sensitivity of drone strikes.

On Nov. 1, 2017, Reuters published an interview with Nigerien Defense Minister Kalla Mountari, in which he seemed to make clear that his country’s government had no objection to American drone strikes, especially in light of deadly ambush near the village of Tongo Tongo in which militants killed two U.S. Army special forces soldiers and two other American support troops. Since 2013, the U.S. Air Force has been flying unarmed MQ-9 Reapers from a base attached to the Nigerien Air Force’s Base Aérienne 101, itself collocated with Diori Hamani International Airport in the capital Niamey.

“I asked them some weeks ago to arm them [the Reapers] and use them as needed,” Kalla Mountari insisted to Reuters. He declined to say whether the U.S. government had or would be accepting the offer, saying only that “our enemies will find out.”

More details continue to emerge about the ambush on Oct. 4, 2017 near the village of Tongo Tongo, including new reports that American commanders ordered the team to proceed despite concerns that the situation was more dangerous than anyone had initially thought. Ever since the incident, there have been continued debate about whether or not the group had adequate resources and whether the U.S. military’s original assessment of the mission as "low risk" was accurate. 

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An MQ-9 Reaper

Whether there were any drones available to support the troops once they came into contact with the enemy, reportedly members of a group presently known as Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, or ISGS, has been a persistent talking point, despite air support of any kind not being a given in many U.S. military operations. The Pentagon has disclosed that an unspecified drone was flying in the area in support of separate element, reportedly under the direction of the secretive Joint Special Operations Command, and moved into position to observe the firefight. American officials have not officially disclosed whether or not that it was carrying missiles or bombs or if the pilots had authorization to conduct a strike even if it was.

“As soon as they asked for help, within minutes it [the drone] was re-tasked to provide intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance – full-motion video, one of the capabilities right over the scene of the troops in contact,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford told reporters on Oct. 23, 2017. “I'm not going to talk about what our capabilities are in the region, but that particular capability that was there within minutes did not strike.”

Kalla’s remarks would seem to conflict with subsequent reports about that incident that suggested the Nigerien government had not approved American air strikes using manned or unmanned aircraft within their borders. It also begs the question as to why, if this is the case, that American forces have not yet launched some form of reprisal against those responsible for the ambush near Tongo Tongo. On Oct. 26, 2017, NBC News reported that the U.S. officials had been “pressing” their Nigerien counterparts to agree to let American forces fly armed drones.

On Oct. 27, 2017, The Wall Street Journal, citing anonymous sources, described a convoluted command structure for approving such a strike “that snakes through the Pentagon.” State Department officials also told the newspaper that the diplomatic corps hadn’t denied any requests to allow American personnel to fly armed drones in the country, going so far as to say that they had no authority to block requests for such operations anywhere in Africa – something experts have said would be “unprecedented if true.”

As such, it remains unclear what the present arrangement the United States has with Niger regarding the status of its forces in the country and what it allows in regards to air strikes. There would definitely be a political dimension to any decision by the Nigerien government to limit or outright block such operations.

More so than air strikes by manned aircraft, American drone operations around the world have long been a lightning rod for criticism. Opponents of the missions argue that the strikes are illegal acts of war that often violate the sovereignty of the countries they occur in. In addition, given the heavy reliance on the narrow "soda straw" view from unmanned aircraft’s sensors for these strikes, there is a debate about whether or no they are inherently less accurate or more likely to kill innocent civilians. The U.S. government’s past use of so-called “signature strikes” against individuals or groups who met a broad criteria for being terrorists or militants, as well as the tactic of positively identifying an individual through the use of a particular cell phone, have been particularly controversial.

More broadly, the presence of foreign troops, especially westerners, throughout Africa can be difficult for average citizens to separate from the dark legacies of European colonialism on the continent. Many African governments, which one might charitably describe as “less-than-democratic,” are therefore happy for U.S. military personnel to operate discreetly within their borders, if not insistent that they do so. Reuters reported that a demonstration in Niamey on Oct. 29, 2017, ostensibly focused on grievances with the central government, included chants decrying the presence of outside military forces, as well.

But there could also be technical issues slowing or possibly even preventing the U.S. military from getting an armed drone mission up and running in Niger, at least in the immediate aftermath of the ambush in October 2017. Though they have become integral to American military missions, drones, especially larger armed types such as the MQ-9, require significant infrastructure on the ground to support their operations.

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Make sure to check our updated interactive google map showing the U.S. military's posture in Africa that posture in Africa

In 2013, the U.S. Air Force’s 27th Special Operations Wing established a drone operation in an undisclosed country, very possibly in Africa, in just three weeks. This was a demonstration of various new techniques that significantly reduced the previous typical deployment timeline, which had been approximately seven weeks.

Though definitely impressive, this deployment consisted of just a single MQ-1 Predator, a single clamshell hangar, and a small number of tents to house an operations center, repair shop, and living spaces for personnel on the ground.  This drone conducted unarmed surveillance flights via the so-called “remote-split operations” method in which airmen or contractors actually in the country are responsible for taking off and landing, while other pilots situated remotely at bases in the United States fly the actual missions.

An armed drone mission would have required additional infrastructure to safely store munitions before missions along with additional personnel trained to assemble those weapons and then load them onto the aircraft. This in turn requires more a larger physical and force protection footprint – you don’t want hazardous explosives too close to living areas for instance – and additional basic resources – food, water, and so on – to support the overall operation. All of this takes time to put in place.

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American personnel break down a Quonset hut at the present American base in Niger following an exercise in September 2017.

In Niger, The French Air Forces does operate armed fixed wing combat aircraft from its own base attached to Diori Hamani International Airport. These Mirage 2000 multi-role jets were part of the response to the ambush in October 2017. The French also plan to arm their own MQ-9s situated there in the near future. It is possible that the U.S. military could reach an agreement to use that country’s arms storage facilities, but it could be a complicated arrangement and would still take time to work out the protocols and procedures.

It’s unclear how often the French fly armed operations from Niamey or intend to do so in the future, as well. The Nigerien authorities at Diori Hamani could easily raise concerns about mixing additional armed aircraft with commercial air traffic at the airport, which has only one runway.

There is a poor public perception of the reliability of American drones, as well, earned or not, which might add weight to those concerns. Fears about armed unmanned aircraft smashing into nearby residential neighborhoods and business districts was a significant part of why the government in Djibouti forced the U.S. Air Force to move its Predators and Reapers out of that country’s main international airport in its capital to the more remote Chabelley Airfield in 2013.

The United States is already in the process of a $100 million construction project in the central Nigerien city of Agadez to effectively create an entirely new air base with its own separate runway. The status of that work is unclear, but it could be that both U.S. and Nigerien authorities are waiting for that facility to be fully operational before actually expanding the size and scope of the American drone operation.

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A satellite imagery showing work on a new US base in Agadez, Niger as of April 2017. Construction of a new runway can be seen at top right.

The construction effort has reportedly suffered delays to the challenges of working in such a remote location and the harsh environment, including regular dust storms. The U.S. military says it doesn't expect the site to be up and running until at least the middle of 2018, according to Stars and Stripes.

"Logistics are the biggest challenges by far," U.S. Air Force Maj. Carsten Stahr, director of operations for the 724th Expeditionary Air Base Squadron, which manages day-to-day American activities in Agadez, told Stars and Stripes. "We’re in the Sahel,  so we deal with anything from daily temperatures over 100 degrees, long  shipping times for supplies, little to no infrastructure nearby, malaria, etc."

On top of all that, every drone flying an armed reconnaissance mission is one that might not be available for other surveillance activities, too. Adding more aircraft again requires more infrastructure and supporting forces and could put more strain on the Air Force’s already overworked drone community.

To underscore that point, in 2013, the U.S. Air Force’s 3rd Special Operations Squadron, part of the 27th Special Operations Wing, was flying three drones in support of U.S. military operations in three different geographic regions from multiple bases overseas, according to one official history. It’s worth noting that the U.S. Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and its MQ-1C Gray Eagles are or at least were for a time at the core of the drone surveillance operation in Cameroon, to the east of Niger, possibly reflecting the lack of other available units that would be able take up such a mission in an austere location.

Britta Pedersen/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP

Nigerien police patrol a waterway near the capital Niamey.

Whatever the issues are or were, it does seem clear that Nigerien authorities have become increasingly comfortable with the idea of an American armed drone operation in their country. This is no doubt a product, at least in part, of increasing threats spilling over from long-running conflicts in neighboring Mali and Nigeria, home to slew of different terrorist and militant groups, including ISIS-affiliates such as ISGS.

On Oct. 13, 2017, terrorists killed more than a dozen Nigerien police in roughly the same area as the ambush involving American forces earlier that month. Despite the Pentagon’s insistence that there was little risk to their mission, locals have dubbed the area the “Red Zone” due to high levels of both terrorist and criminal activity, including kidnapping and smuggling rings.

Armed drones coupled with persistent surveillance capabilities could help monitor this and other similar areas and strike groups of fighters when appropriate. It could also just as easily inflame tensions given that many regional militant organizations blend together extremist Islamist religious ideologies with other more mundane grievances and have close ties to various ethnic minority communities. There are reports that villagers may have tipped off ISGS fighters to the presence of the U.S.-Nigerien patrol ahead of the ambush in October 2017.

But before any American drone strikes occur, the United States and Niger still have to figure out whatever political and technical hang-ups are apparently still holding up the final agreement.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com